Southern Exposure
Blues Records Fetch Premium Prices in Online Auctions
Do you remember those old 78 rpm records? If you're young enough to have no clue about recordings that preceded cassettes, 78s were those records that featured one song to a side and were so easily broken. Perhaps you've heard your grandparents speak of them. Should you think 78s are nothing more than esoteric relics, might I suggest that you check out online auction sites like eBay. Last summer, I kept up with a number of eBay auctions, and my observations proved interesting---even downright astonishing at times!

Old Blues Records Stand Out in the Crowd

There is a definite market for 78 rpm records, and collectors don't mind paying good prices for the best and rarest, whether they were recorded in the 1950s or the 1920s.

You would think that the recent release of bio pics chronicling the lives and careers of legendary musicians Ray Charles and Johnny Cash might prompt a dramatic increase in the value and popularity of their oldest records, but I was able to obtain an Atlantic 78 rpm record containing Charles's "Drown In My Own Tears" and "Mary Ann" for only $9.99 on eBay last year. Worth noting, the record was in pristine condition. Like Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and other legends, Johnny Cash recorded for Sam Phillips' Memphis-based Sun Records, and one of his Sun 78s, featuring "I Walk the Line" (the namesake of the 2005 James Mangold-directed film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon), did bring $102.50 on eBay in November 2005, but many Cash recordings can be acquired for very reasonable prices.

Some of the steepest prices, on the other hand, are paid for certain old blues records. However, it takes more than genre, age and condition to make a record create a bidding war on eBay. For example, last year eBay auctions included a Tampa Red recording on RCA Victor described as near mint that brought only $7.00. Also, Bessie Smith's famous "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" in "E++" condition sold for a whopping $9.99 and Ethel Waters' Black Swan release of "Dying with the Blues" and "Kiss Your Pretty Baby Nice" climbed to $33.45.

Compare those modest prices to Paramount releases from Ida Cox, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey! These records remain hot commodities decades after the deaths of the artists who recorded them.

Ida Cox was noted for her death-themed songs and particularly famous for her raucous "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues." In 2005, eBay dealer tomkellyarchives of St. Louis sold Cox's Paramount 78s 12251 ("Graveyard Dream Blues" and "Mississippi River Blues") and 12353 ("Do Lawd Do" and "Night and Day Blues") for $124.95 and $255.00 respectively.

Photograph courtesy of eBay dealer, cloud-9-records.

This Blind Lemon Jefferson 78 rpm record was sold in a July 2006 eBay auction for $1370 by Sherwin Dunner and Richard Nevins (aka cloud-9-records) of Newton, New Jersey.

Like Cox, Ma Rainey was another female blues pioneer, and the Georgia native's repertoire included "Black Bottom" and "Boll Weavil Blues." Rainey's Paramount records have fared quite well on eBay. Her 78s auctioned in 2005 by tomkellyarchives included 12332 ("Slave To The Blues" and "Oh My Babe Blues") at $86.51 and 12352 ("Mountain Jack Blues" and "Seeking Blues") at $217.50. Another eBay seller, onemintjulip10, surpassed their sale of Rainey's 12098 ("Lost Wandering Blue" and "Dream Blues") at $227.50 by selling 12647 ("Blues The World Forgot" and "Part 2") for $435!

If those prices for Ida Cox and Ma Rainey records weren't enough, Blind Lemon Jefferson 78s really created a buzz. Jefferson's 12407 ("The Black Snake Moan" and "Stocking Feet Blues") was sold by Denmark-based eBay dealer blues_samler for $203.50, and tomkellyarchives auctioned 12373 ("Jack O Diamond Blues" and "Clock House Blues") for $316. But the attention-getting record from Blind Lemon Jefferson was his rare "birthday" record (featuring Jefferson's photograph on the label). This record, 12650 ("Piney Woods Money Mama" and "Lowdown Mojo Blues"), was sold by rockola45s for $535.

"Broke and Hungry"

As other projects and endeavors occupied my time with the beginning of 2006, I spent little time watching the auctions of blues records until recently. In early July, I was awed by the sale of Blind Lemon Jefferson's 12443 ("Bad Luck Blues" and "Broke and Hungry") at $1370. Interestingly, I would be broke and end up hungry, if I spent nearly fourteen hundred dollars on a record! But someone else---with deeper pockets, nonetheless---liked it well enough to fork over the money.

Blues 78s Worth Watching For

Without question, old blues records have their following, and it pays to be on the lookout at garage sales, flea markets and local auctions for these recorded gems of yesterday. You can't always know if an item would be worth a bundle to a serious collector, but the first step to buying successfully for resale (or your own collection) is simply to become an educated buyer. Take the time to learn about the recording artists and understand why their music remains special despite the passing of time. And have some fun. After all, the thrill of the hunt is as much a part of the experience as bagging a long sought after record. Lastly, don't give up. There's at least one 78 rpm record out there somewhere just for you! You'll know it when you find it.


Bill Wyman, Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey:  A Journey to Music's Heart & Soul (New York:  Dorling Kindersley, Inc., 2001).

Author:  Greg Freeman.  Published August 25, 2006.

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